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A guide for funeral planning

No one likes to think about death, let alone plan for it. In many families, discussing one's mortality is an extremely uncomfortable topic. But it is a topic that should be discussed and planned for well in advance.

By planning your funeral, you relieve your family of having to make important financial decisions during a period of great stress and grief — a time when people aren't thinking very clearly and may not know what to do because you never made your wishes known.

It's easy to say, "Don't make a fuss. I don't want a ceremony. Just bury me and be done with it." But it is important to realize that the ritual of a funeral and/or memorial service isn't for the deceased but for the living. It is a time when friends and family can gather to grieve openly and to provide support for one another.

Today, increasing numbers of people are planning their own funerals, and about 98 percent of the funeral homes in America offer a funeral preplanning option. Those who plan secure peace of mind for themselves and their loved ones.

Why plan your own funeral?

Planning a funeral serves three purposes. First, it allows you to determine what type of funeral service and disposition you want. This prepares your loved ones for handling your funeral. It also gives you time to purchase a cemetery plot, as well as to gather funds and pay for the services, plot, and other goods and merchandise. Planning eliminates uncertainties and surprises.

Secondly, planning your own funeral spares your survivors the burden of making last-minute decisions. Death brings with it grief, confusion, uncertainty, emotional upheaval and, at times, irrationality. Under these circumstances, it becomes extremely difficult for survivors to make the best decisions. This may result in delays, much worry and unnecessary expenses.

If you plan and prepay, you will be giving your family some financial security and relieving them of any future financial burden. Planning eliminates unnecessary difficulties in a time of stress and sorrow. It creates comfort and peace for the survivors and gives them the feeling of satisfaction in carrying out your wishes.

Finally, selecting a funeral home eliminates the need to search for one at the last minute. The funeral home will know what to do at the time of your death, and your family will know who to deal with and what to expect.  

Steps to take now

If you are interested in planning a funeral, you should do the following:

  • Research the subject. Call a few local funeral homes for general information. Follow up with visits to some of these with your close relatives to feel out the places. Obtain brochures and compare the funeral homes with respect to services, goods and costs.
  • Request brochures from your local association of funeral directors, the National Funeral Directors Association (NFDA) and AARP. These brochures contain excellent information on various aspects of preplanning.
  • Study the Federal Trade Commission's (FTC) Funeral Rule and obtain FTC brochures on the topics of funerals, caskets and vaults.
  • Visit the cemetery of your choice to select the specific location of your grave.

A funeral director is one source of information, but you should still do independent research before meeting with him or her so you are clearn on what services you want and won't be talked into something you don't. Funeral directors can discuss options, services and costs, as well as help you to personalize your funeral. Your funeral director will show you the facilities, the merchandise, and the cemetery, and will set the stage for completing all the arrangements.

Right now, in the absence of emotional pressure, is the best time to make decisions. The AARP recommends that everyone plan and prepay. They indicate that preneed plans are especially attractive to the elderly. I

A traditional funeral, including the ceremony, transportation of the remains, a casket, and the services provided by the funeral director, usually costs between $5,000 and $6,000. This figure does not include a lot, head stone, mausoleum space, or the costs of opening and closing a grave. It may or may not include the cost of a vault, limousines, flowers, obituary notices or an honorarium for the clergy. For an in-ground burial, add one to two thousand dollars to this price. When you are making arrangements with a funeral director, insist on clarifying in writing what is and what is not included in the package.

The FTC's Funeral Rule protects the consumer. It requires that a funeral director provide consumers with itemized price lists, which can then be used to compare costs. This general price list must be in writing, and must contain the cost of each individual funeral item and service offered. Once you have selected the items you want, the funeral director must give you a statement of goods and services selected along with the individual prices of each item.

Additional steps

Purchasing a plot

Once you decide to buy a cemetery lot and a contract is being prepared, make sure you look it over carefully before you sign. Make sure the care and maintenance of the grave site are provided. The contract should have a description of interment rights, merchandise, and should itemize charges and details of a payment plan, including trusting, refunds and possible cancellation.

Paying for the funeral

Before you pay for funeral goods and services, consider the following issues:

  • Be sure you know what you are paying for. Are you buying only merchandise, such as a casket and vault, or are you purchasing funeral services as well?
  • What happens to the money you have pre-paid? Some states have different requirements concerning the handling of funds paid for pre-arranged funeral services. Check with the NFDA or your local funeral directors association to get clarification of these requirements.
  • What happens to the interest income on money that is pre-paid and put into a trust account?
  • Are you protected if the firm with which you are doing business should go out of business?
  • Can you cancel the contract and get back any money you have prepaid if you should change your mind about the planned funeral?
  • What if you should move, or die away from home? Some pre-paid funeral plans can be transferred, but often there is an added cost in doing so.

Keep copies of the pre-payment documents and inform your family about their whereabouts.

Paying for your funeral

Three of the most commonly used methods are payment from personal accounts, payment through a trust and payment from a life insurance benefit.

  • Payment from a personal account — This is the easiest method. No lawyers are needed. Simply open a savings account with enough money to cover the cost of the funeral. This account should be designated as “payable upon death” to the funeral home. Alternatively, you may open a joint account with your next of kin who has the right of survivorship. Upon your death, this survivor will pay for your funeral.
  • Payment from a trust — This method requires prepayment of the funeral costs to the funeral home. The funeral director puts this payment into a trust account. The beneficiary of this trust will be the funeral director; he will receive the funds upon your death. Most funeral homes offer this funding option. If you choose this method, make sure the trust is regulated by your state.
  • Payment through a life insurance policy — This method requires purchasing a life insurance benefit equal to the cost of the funeral. The benefits are either assigned to the funeral home, or the funeral home is named as the beneficiary. When you die, the funeral home collects the benefits of the insurance policy.

The AARP product report “Pre-Paying Your Funeral” is an excellent source for additional information on this subject

Prepare an information brochure on yourself

This is one of the most important aspects of preneed funeral planning. Between the finalization of the preneed agreement and your death, a considerable length of time may pass. Many of the details of the arrangement may be forgotten. At the time of your death, your family will be at a loss to understand what was done. Therefore, it is vital that you create a composite document containing all the pertinent information.

This important brochure should include the following:

  • Personal information: your name, date and place of birth, current address and Social Security number.
  • Names, addresses, telephone numbers of your spouse, previous spouses, children, parents, brothers, sisters and other relatives.
  • Names, addresses and telephone numbers of friends, employers, attorneys, executor of your estate, funeral director and clergy person.
  • Information on your education, organizations you belong to, religion, obituary notices and organ donation.
  • Details about your veteran status.
  • Your wishes regarding disposition of body, funeral home, cemetery, casket, vault, music, flowers, visitation and donations in your memory.
  • Location of your passport, drivers license, real estate papers, insurance policies, checkbooks, passbooks, credit cards, safe deposit box and key and preneed funeral contract.

Tie up the loose ends

After you have researched the funeral plan, made the decisions, signed the preneed contract and prepared the information brochure, it is time to put it all together. Place all the papers in a safe place and tell your next of kin where they are. This is when you will experience personal satisfaction and contentment, knowing that you are giving your family peace of mind.

(July 25, 2011)


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